We talk to Anna about game design and life at Firesprite as Associate Game Director
When did you know that you wanted to work in games?
When I was 13 and spent most of my free time programming little games on my ZX Spectrum in the 80s. At this time though, I had no idea how to possibly do that for a living, so I ended up doing a whole load of other stuff before coming back to games when I went to university.
How did you get your job in games?
I did a MA in Game Design at Bournemouth University a very long time ago, I’d been making Doom levels and Quake conversions for a while before then. I applied for game design positions when I finished Uni. It was good timing, the PS1 had come out a couple of years before and the games industry was booming, games were moving into 3D - suddenly needing bigger teams to make them - and realising they needed designers. I rocked up to my interviews with my Quake projects on floppy disks - remember them! - and got a job at Psygnosis after only about 2 weeks. I was lucky.
How does your work as Associate Game Director help bring Firesprite’s games to life?
I help run the design department so my job is focused on how we can make our designers effective, efficient and happy, and of course effective efficient and happy designers are good ones! I do get opportunities to work hands on with the games too, most recently on Horizon Call of the Mountain, and then my most important job is getting all the disciplines working together well - it might be clarifying the vision of a game so that everyone knows where we’re heading or it might be focusing on a small part of the game that isn’t working quite right and collaborating with everyone to find a solution.
What advice would you give to your younger self on your first day in the industry?
Everyone gets imposter syndrome! I think we all spend at least 2 years thinking “someone’s going to rumble me any minute now…” because we can’t believe our luck at getting such an awesome job!
What’s the best advice you’ve been given since starting your career in gaming?
“Always think of the player”. That was one of my first lead designers way back at Sony Psygnosis, a total legend; it’s something I try to keep constantly in my mind - this game is going to be played by real players, it’s not just for you, Anna! :)
What are the challenges of game design and how do we overcome them?
Balancing the realities of development with the passion to create the best game possible, and alongside that “the curse of knowledge”, where you know everything about the game you’re working on so it’s hard to know how a new player will see it. Like any creative endeavour it can be hard to know when to stop, and there’s an urge to keep tweaking and polishing and changing just one little thing. But the reality is for the player, they’re probably not even going to notice the tiny details you’re obsessing about and instead might be getting stuck on something you’ve not appreciated at all, because you know your game inside out. User testing is absolutely vital to get you focusing on the bits that matter most to the players.
How did you develop and refine your Associate Game Director skills?
Making games! I made Doom and Quake levels and then moved on to doing Quake conversions pre-getting into the industry. I do also take opportunities to learn new stuff whenever I can, the GDC vault is a great source of learning material we have access to at Firesprite and I’m often reading articles or watching videos or taking part in workshops at Firesprite to find out how we can make better, more fun and more inclusive games.
What’s your gamedev superpower?
Collaboration. However insurmountable an issue appears to be, if you can get the key people involved in a room - or, in a video call - and get them talking I believe you can resolve anything.
What most excites you about your role?
There’s always something new to learn! Way back when I started there were only console, arcade, and PC games but now we have mobile, we have free to play, we have games as a service… learning new stuff keeps you on your toes and your brain active and I enjoy it. :D
What lessons have shaped the work you do today as Associate Game Director?
Oh lots of things. Everything is grist for the mill of a creative mind, right? Usually analysing other games and finding out how they did something, you can learn a lot from that. Learning how to really engage with user testing and data has been a relatively recent thing for me from the last 5 years and it’s something I’m very interested in right now. Your players are your lifeblood!
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to be a Game Director?
Make games! Something like Unity or Unreal is a fantastic place to start and free to download, but if you can’t get these there are loads of other resources around, you can use something a simple as Scratch which is online, make paper board or card games, the more you make the more you learn! Look out for game jams to take part in, find out if there are ways to access tech through your school or college if you don’t have your own PC.
If you’re already in the industry and aspiring to be a Game Director, my first advice would be to ask yourself if you really do. It means giving up a lot of really fun hands-on stuff and basically answering questions every day, and doing a LOT of Powerpoint presentations.
If you’re not scared off by the Powerpoint presentations, I’d say work on your communication and collaboration skills. Get good at appreciating what every discipline brings to the table and bringing people together to find solutions. Get comfortable with presenting confidently. And of course, there’s a fine line between confident and visionary and being immovable, so learn what your blind spots are and when you need to check yourself, when you need to rely on the judgement of others.
Where do you see game design headed in 5 years?
Oh good question. The discipline has definitely grown more and more specialised whilst I’ve been in the industry. My first job I did a bit of pretty much everything. Now there’s all sorts of specialisations - Level Design, Game Design, Economy Design, Narrative Design… I think we’re going to see a big jump in Technical Design and how they’re used within studios. Its such a fascinating area of development, how you bring the content creation teams together with the code teams working in harmony, I’ve worked with some amazing tech designers that have made such a huge difference to a project. If i was starting out now I might well go into Tech Design actually.
What is something you’ve learned since you started working at Firesprite?
That Liverpool has some awesome places to eat for vegans! I love visits to the studio and I always eat as much as possible.
What’s your proudest Firesprite moment so far?
Horizon Call of the Mountain being released, I only worked on it a few months helping finish up the combat but it was so nice to see great reviews coming in.
What’s the best thing about working at Firesprite?
The people, and the projects! I get to work across multiple projects and talk to loads of people so that always keeps things interesting. Also, we have a fantastic People Engagement Manager, Chloe who’s always looking out for the team and sending us little presents, it makes me feel very valued!
What makes you proud to be a sprite?
That Firesprite is so inclusive and makes tangible efforts to address the inequalities we see in the games industry. People making games should really reflect the diverse range of people playing them, and Firesprite is working towards that and isn’t ashamed to say so.
Tell us something you’ve learned from one of your fellow sprites!
The joys of multiplayer gaming from one of our Level Designers Beth! I used to play a lot of Quake and Unreal Tournament way back when, but I’ve gotten very rusty over the last couple of decades working largely in single player games. Beth adores competitive multiplayer and she’s an absolute pro, to hear her talk about MP games so passionately and about finding skill even in when you jump in a MP game has really enthused me about multiplayer games again.
What are some of the best things about being Associate Game Director at Firesprite?
All the people I get to talk to and engage with! As a designer, I’m usually working with all the other disciplines on how we get the player experience we want. I like to think I’m technically minded so I love working with the coders and pretending to be very clever, and I don’t have an artistic bone in my body I’m afraid so I’m always in awe of the artists and what they can do. And, particularly when working in combat, animators are just heroes, you say, “this enemy needs to do this attack in this very specific way and oh by the way it can only last half a second and needs to work whether the player is right up close or 10 metres away” and off they go and do it and the enemies totally come to life! Same for audio. And QA are all sorts of fabulous, the most patient and calming people ever. Amazing.